93. Memorandum of a Conversation, Soviet Embassy, London, August 18, 1956, 11 a.m.1



  • The United States
    • The Secretary of State
    • Mr. Bohlen
  • Soviet Union
    • Mr. Shepilov
    • Mr. Troyanovski


  • Suez Conference

After an exchange of amenities the Secretary inquired what was Mr. Shepilov’s opinion concerning the Conference.

Mr. Shepilov replied that it was difficult at the present time to come to any real evaluation, the first moves had been made and now the question was how to conclude the Conference with some result. He felt a great deal depended on Mr. Dulles and he ventured to conclude from Mr. Dulles’ speech that the United States took a flexible approach which he felt marked some difference from the three-power statement of August 22 in that he felt that the United States approach was less categorical in regard to an International Body to run the Canal. But there had been some points in the United States position which were not clear to him. For example, he did not understand what was meant by a non-political body and wondered if this meant an association of ship owners. Also the form of relationship with the United Nations was not clear. He had noted with great satisfaction, however, Mr. Dulles’ statement that any solution must be just and acceptable to all. He felt that this was correct and gave hope for a positive result of the Conference. He said he was ready to discuss with Mr. Dulles the work of the Conference and to answer any questions concerning the Soviet attitude.

The Secretary said Mr. Shepilov was correct in understanding that our attitude was flexible to a considerable degree. He wished, however, to make clear that on one substantive aspect our attitude was not flexible and that was that the Canal could not be left under the exclusive control and operation of Egypt. He had not wished in any speech at the Conference to say anything which might reflect on Egypt, but that our sentiments had been well expressed by the New [Page 222]Zealand representative when he said that there could be no confidence in the political stability of Egypt, or that its Government was sufficiently removed from political passions and ambitions as to assure that under exclusive Egyptian control the Canal would not be used as an instrument of Egyptian policy. Even today ships carrying food to Israel encounter great difficulties in going through the Canal and similar discrimination could be employed against the ships of any country in the future if Egypt had exclusive control over the Canal. It was necessary to find means to insure that the Canal would not be used as an instrument of Egyptian national policy or of the national policy of any country. Any nation in complete control could find ways of discrimination which would be impossible to prevent or rectify through any board of appeal or similar advisory body. He mentioned that at the present time there seemed to be a high degree of illness among British and French pilots on the Canal. In reply to Mr. Shepilov’s observation that this was not Egypt’s fault, the Secretary said he had cited it as an example of the type of possibility which must be guarded against. If it were British and French pilots at the present time, under Egyptian control it could be Egyptian pilots, and it would be hardly feasible to call a session of the General Assembly to determine whether these pilots were really sick. As another illustration he outlined the operation of an airfield under which the person in the control tower, particularly in bad weather, could by innumerable, undetectable means discriminate against one airplane in favor of another. Similar undetectable discriminations could be employed in the operation of the Canal. He went on to say that none of us could with confidence state that Col. Nasser was not ambitious and could be counted on not to use the Canal to further his ambitions, and in any event, if not Nasser, there could be no guarantee concerning the actions of future Egyptian leaders. Therefore he felt that an international highway, upon which the economic life of so many nations literally depended, placed upon those at this Conference a duty to insulate the Canal from international politics. It is possible that in the past there had been too much Western political influence, but it would hardly be an improvement if it were made an instrument of Egyptian politics. In regard to Mr. Shepilov’s question he could say that by “non-political body” he did not mean a private body of ship owners, but operation under the direction of countries divorced from political interest in the area but which did have an interest and confidence in shipping matters, such as, for example, Sweden. In regard to connection with the United Nations he had thought that, for example, the General Assembly might select the countries responsible for the operation of the Canal under a Treaty which would lay down the guiding principles such as equitable geographic representation and absence of political motivation [Page 223]in the area. It should be made clear that there would be no interference with Egyptian sovereignty but that this body would deal only with the technical side. He then referred to the sentence in Mr. Shepilov’s speech of yesterday which referred to international cooperation in safe-guarding the operation of the Canal and said that he felt that within the spirit and language of that paragraph a bridge might be built by the United States and Soviet positions which would be a good thing not only for this Conference but for the future of the world. At this Conference, as he had said before, for the first time the United States and the USSR were not the principal antagonists and if they could reach an agreement it would be a very good sign. In conclusion he said that this was a situation which would not remain static and if the Conference could not find an agreed solution, it would become chaotic. He said other questions upon which agreement had not been possible had not been of this nature, and while their failure had been unfortunate there was at least a status quo which could be maintained without chaos resulting from the failure to agree. He did not wish to suggest that armed force would be used since he felt that it was never useful to confront nations or conferences with the threat of force and United States influence has been and continues to be in the direction of peaceful solution. But he did not believe that our two countries either separately or jointly could guarantee that passions and clashes might not arise in the area in the event that the Conference came to nothing. There was one other question also which had been submerged by the Suez strife but which should never be forgotten, and that was the Israeli-Arab conflict. Incidents had begun to flare up again and could easily touch off hostilities since one side or the other might try to seek advantage for itself during the present crisis.

He said the possibility of hostilities was the worst aspect of the situation and the United States was devoting all its efforts to preventing such an occurrence. But even if hostilities were avoided the situation would not be good and there would remain grave tensions and uncertainties. He mentioned that if the economic blood stream of so many nations was poisoned, they would be forced to seek alternate means of satisfying their vital economic needs. For example, the United States could produce without difficulty and speedily a great deal more oil (about 1 million barrels a day), as could Western Canada, but that this increased production would interfere with the pattern of world economic life and would furthermore tend to separate East and West when all efforts should be in the opposite direction. He concluded by saying that he had given a full and frank exposition of the problem as he saw it.

Mr. Shepilov said he appreciated very much Mr. Dulles’ confidence and frankness and he would also be candid. He did not [Page 224]exclude the possibility of a rapprochement between the positions of the US and the USSR, and that such a rapprochement would have a positive effect on the whole situation. He also agreed that a bridge between them would be a happy possibility leading to a revival of the spirit of Geneva which they had all welcomed. It would be an unforgivable mistake to neglect the opportunity afforded at this conference not only for the relations between their two countries, but for the whole cause of world peace.

He felt they were witnessing a favorable evolution of British and French thinking on the Suez problem which he felt resulted from two factors: 1) the influence of world opinion including opinion in Britain and France; and, 2) the restraining, in the good sense of the word, influence of the United States. He found evidence of this evolution in the recognition not only of public opinion but in responsible British officials that the use of force would be disastrous and that a settlement by peaceful means was necessary. He found further evidence in the fact that there seemed to be no longer any question of the restoration of the old regime for the Canal nor of questioning the Egyptian act of nationalization. He felt that the British were exercising common sense. The current question was what should the conference do next, and as he saw it the chief problem was that of guarantees concerning the functioning of the Canal. And, he felt many here were showing goodwill and desire to meet Egypt halfway, but they were likewise interested in the question of what guarantees could be obtained. He felt this aspect could not be ignored. This was even more so since the Egyptian Government and Colonel Nasser had obviously been influenced by passion, had shown intemperance, and had even made mistakes. While he could understand the feelings of the Arabs towards the Jews, he felt that some of their actions, and in particular, the prohibition of the passage of Israeli ships through the Canal, had aroused mistrust which could have been avoided had Egypt shown greater political maturity. Mr. Dulles is quite right in saying that the question does not relate only to Colonel Nasser’s personal qualifications since the settlement they should seek here would obtain for scores of years. The question, therefore, is how to safeguard the interests of other countries in the free navigation of the Canal and not encroach on Egypt’s sovereign rights. It would be useful to keep in mind clearly on what basis guarantees had rested in the past. A private company based on a concession operated the Canal but it was the Convention of 1888 which dealt with the guarantee of free navigation. However, the 1888 Convention did not envisage nor provide any mechanism for sanctions. It was the instrument of guarantee since the private company could not deal with this question. Therefore, he felt they should seek to devise a more perfect instrument of guarantee than [Page 225]the 1888 Convention, either through amendment or a new Convention. He said he wished to make a few general observations which he hoped Mr. Dulles would note carefully. He had twice been in Egypt and in other Arab countries during the past year and he wished to tell Mr. Dulles of his deep conviction of the strength of the upsurge of national feelings in those countries. Anything that appeared to disregard their national feelings or to smack of colonialism was greeted with great sensitivity. He knew that the United States, with no colonial heritage in the area, could take a more objective view of the situation. This aspect of the problem was very important for the solution of the problem of the Suez Canal. He was deeply convinced that if at this conference or any other the position is taken for the international operation of the Canal, Egypt and other countries in the area would view that as an attempt to restore the old colonial system and far from producing tranquility in the area we should contribute to a deepening of the contradictions and bring about an increase of troubles. Therefore, instead of international operation with Egyptian participation he felt a better formula would be Egyptian operation with participation of countries concerned in order to guarantee their interests and the proper use of the Canal. This abstract formula could be filled in with different concrete proposals, but he felt the task was to give it content which would be just and acceptable to all concerned. He felt there were two organizational questions: 1) the drawing up of a new Convention which would have no trace of colonialism but would be based on the principle of free navigation and guarantees to insure this with respect for the sovereign rights of Egypt; 2) a mechanism for operating the Canal on the basis of the formula of Egyptian operation with the participation of other interested countries. He could not go into detail and felt that at the present stage to seek to work out all the provisions without the participation of Egypt would not be possible, but the principle of Egyptian operation with participation of other countries for the purpose of guaranteeing the free and efficient functioning of the Canal was the correct line. He said he would support also the idea of some relationship with the UN. He felt also there was a possibility of finding common ground between the US and Soviet positions.

As to Israel, he continued, he felt this situation was not hopeless and that when the atmosphere became calmer it might be something that could be discussed. But he felt there were no insuperable obstacles to a future settlement. He concluded by saying that he now understood what the Secretary meant by non-political operation which could be discussed when they came to consider mechanisms. He then inquired how Mr. Dulles envisaged bringing to an end the work of the conference.

[Page 226]

The Secretary said first of all he would like to comment on some of Mr. Shepilov’s observations before coming to that question. He agreed there had been an important evolution in British and French thinking; that two or three weeks ago when he was here they had been prepared to take precipitate action but that now calmer views were prevailing. In fact, it had been his hope that the present conference, which had not been immediately acceptable to his associates, would produce just that result. He felt, however, that it would be a mistake to conclude that if this conference found no solution or, more accurately, envisaged no prospect of solution, the danger had entirely passed. It should also be recognized that even though the US might disagree with certain views of the British and French, should those countries become engaged in the long run they could count on US moral support and possibly more than moral support. Mr. Shepilov had correctly pointed out that the Convention of 1888 does not in itself provide mechanism for enforcing its guarantees. In the past the entire system had rested on three elements: 1) the Convention of 1888; 2) the Suez Company; and 3) the actual presence of Great Britain in Egypt and subsequently in the Canal Zone. Two of these elements have disappeared and he agreed that the Convention of 1888 needed to be supplemented or replaced. He also agreed that what they should do in this regard should be of a lasting nature since they could not continue to have recurring crises since this placed too great a strain on the fabric of peace. Mr. Shepilov then inquired what was Mr. Dulles’ attitude in regard to the formula of Egyptian operation with the participation of other countries.

The Secretary replied he would wish to think about this; that it has possibilities but it would be premature for him to express an opinion. It was a serious suggestion and he would give it serious attention. As to the end of the conference, he said it was the present purpose of the United States delegation to formulate today and tomorrow for possible submission to the conference on Monday a document which would endeavor to reflect the views expressed in his speech with such adaptations as might be suitable taking into account the views and suggestions made by other members of the conference including those of Mr. Shepilov. He said this would lead to further discussion at the conference leading towards the initiation of negotiation with Egypt on behalf of those countries who accepted these principles, but not on behalf, of course, of those who did not.

The Secretary concluded that he felt it might be useful over this weekend to maintain contact, with which Mr. Shepilov expressed complete agreement.

  1. Source: Department of State, Conference Files: Lot 62 D 181, CF 754. Secret. Prepared by the U.S. Delegation at the Suez Canal Conference, but the source text does not indicate a drafting officer. Approved by Dulles on August 18.
  2. Document 53.